Boston school officials are expected to unveil five proposals Monday night for allowing students to attend schools closer to their homes, a move that potentially could end four decades of cross-city busing.
The proposals have been months in the making, and hundreds of parents and other interested parties are expected to turn out for a 6 p.m. presentation at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester, the first in a series of public meetings where emotions could run high.
Details of the five student-assignment proposals were being kept secret until the Monday presentation; school officials last week spoke of the plans only in broad outline.
But Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has tried unsuccessfully for more than a decade to change the assignment system, has promised that by this January the School Committee will have adopted a new system that is “radically different” from the current one.
The earliest any changes would go into effect would be for fall 2014.
“I’m confident there will be change,” Superintendent Carol R. Johnson said Friday. “I’m not sure which model people will choose. We are not walking into the meeting saying this is our number-one option.”
An advisory committee appointed by the mayor will sort through the five proposals, which will be presented to that committee Monday night. That panel will then suggest any alterations to the proposals before making a final recommendation to the School Committee, which is scheduled to vote on it in December.
Change is welcomed by some parents who are eager to see a return to neighborhood schools or something akin to it; Menino and school officials say the new system will still offer parents some choice in where to send their children to school.
But some parents and education advocates are skeptical that all students can get a good education at schools in their neighborhoods, even if they can pick from several schools. They point out that the city’s poorest neighborhoods tend to have the largest concentration of low-achieving schools, a situation the School Department has been trying to remedy.
“This could affect many generations to come, and we have to make sure we do it right,” said Kim Janey, senior project director for Massachusetts Advocates for Children, a Boston nonprofit. “We have to ensure there is equal access to high-quality schools.”
The current system — enacted in 1989 to replace a court-ordered forced-busing plan to desegregate the city’s schools — has long been criticized as cumbersome and confusing.
Under the system, the city is divided into three sprawling geographic regions, each providing a choice of about two dozen schools. But admission to a particular school is not guaranteed. A computerized algorithm sorts through applications, giving preference to students who live within walking distance to the school or who already have a sibling enrolled.
Each year, hundreds of families have their dreams dashed when they do not get a school they want.
The system applies only to elementary, middle, and K-8 schools. All high schools are citywide. Under the proposed changes, the three zones would disappear, while the high schools would remain citywide.
Johnson said Friday that four of the proposed models to be presented would have more than three zones and that the fifth model would have no zones. She did not specify how the no-zone proposal would work, but some parents and advocates have suggested adopting a system that simply allows students to pick any school within a certain distance of their homes.
Presenting five models to the public represents the biggest public outreach effort since 2004 when the School Department examined changing the student assignment system and offered eight proposals.
The 2004 proposals ran the gamut from keeping the status quo to creating a citywide school-choice system. In between, there were proposals for four zones, six zones, and 12 zones — to name a few — and varying boundaries through different neighborhoods.
All of those proposals ultimately failed to gain support amid concerns about a lack of high-quality schools. But the process did lead to some changes, such as reserving more seats at schools for neighborhood children and creating more K-8 schools — an option popular with parents.
In early 2009, the School Department tried changing boundaries again, offering a five-zone plan that was developed with no public input. The proposal died within a few months, amid a public uproar that some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods would be stuck with too many low-performing schools.
School officials say they believe they finally have overcome the concern over low-performing schools by overhauling programs and teaching instruction at many schools. They noted that more schools now have waiting lists.
But they acknowledge that more work needs to be done. Johnson said she is planning to target 21 schools for more aggressive interventions.
“We are always trying to make our schools, schools of choice for families in the city,” she said.
Since March, an advisory committee appointed by Menino — consisting of more than 24 parents, academics, business professionals, and other community leaders — has immersed itself in data, research, and public outreach.
In hearing from more than 2,300 stakeholders, the committee has heard what many parents and others want out of a student-assignment system: strong academics and a safe environment close to home.
But priorities differ based on where parents live. Those in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury, for instance, tend to place a higher premium on safety over proximity; those in West Roxbury, East Boston, and Charlestown like neighborhood schools.
It is the same dynamic of opinion that the School Department confronted in 2004 when it sought input from about 750 parents, community activists, and other interested parties.
“There is no way every neighborhood and every family will have quality choices” in 2014 if the School Committee adopts a plan for smaller assignment zones, said Mary Battenfeld, a Jamaica Plain mother of three children. “I think we need more investment in quality schools across the city.”